Sunday, February 26, 2023

Correct Your Tastes: Hidden Blade (2023) Review

Director: Cheng Er

Notable Cast: Tony Leung, Wang Yibo, Eric Wang, Zhou Xun, Huang Lei, Chengpeng Dong, Maggie Jiang, Zhang Jingyi, Hiroyuki Mori


Although the Japanese occupation of China has been the topic of umpteen-million Chinese films throughout their cinematic history, many different genres approach the subject in unique ways so that it still can feel fresh… with the proper execution. Hidden Blade, the latest film from director Cheng Er, leaps into the world of Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s during the Japanese occupation. It’s not a wholly original concept, in fact, Cheng Er dealt with similar subject matters in his previous effort The Wasted Times, but it’s an artful and tensely executed espionage film with an overt style that slices through each moment. 


While the big draw of the film will be Tony Leung doing his thing in a nifty period setting, which we will get to momentarily, the most fascinating aspect of Hidden Blade is its almost dream-like narrative structure. While the first act features some stunning visuals and tense key moments, it practically drifts in a fluid manner through each sequence in a way that thinly draws some connections but never solidifies the ‘why’ or even ‘when’ they are occurring. 


This allows Hidden Blade to play games with its audience. The film is inherently about the Chinese men and women who are working with the Japanese during the occupation of its time frame, but it’s immediately known that each one carries ulterior motives. Like the characters, who hide, reveal, or manipulate one another, the narrative does the same. As allegiances shift, the characters bounce through their navigation of multiple alliances and it’s just damn good espionage. It’s toying with the audience and it’s entertaining in that manner. 


Saturday, February 11, 2023

Mirages Are About to Appear: Ox-Head Village (2023) Review [Screambox Original]

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Notable Cast: Koki, Riku Hagiwara, Keiko Horiuchi, Rinka Otani, Haruka Imou, Akaji Maro, Satoru Matsuo, Fumiya Takahashi, Naoki Tanaka, Satoru Date, Riko


At just over the fifteen-minute mark in Takashi Shimizu’s latest horror flick, Ox-Head Village, our leading lady and her “not-boyfriend” go to a smaller seaside town looking to investigate a viral video.  An announcement over a loudspeaker is made, “the mirages are about to appear.” Everyone skitters to the water’s edge to see the mirages and Kanon, the lead character of this story played by Koki, starts to see the forms of people on the water. Ghostly people.


Although this would seem like the first ghostly images to start off a horror film, we’re already fifteen minutes into a Shimizu story. That means we’ve already seen plenty of visual trickery, ghostly images, and classic unnerving subtle spook work. Unattached hands, vague visages of oxen's head, and a minor case of doppelganger reflections. By the time these ‘mirages’ show up, Ox-Head Village has already been littering the landscape with classic J-horror visuals and tones. You’re damn right, it’s a Shimizu film. 


The first fifteen minutes of Ox-Head Village is a stark reminder of why the previously appointed sub-genre of J-Horror, an entire tone and style that Shimizu helped establish with his Ju-On (Grudge) films, can be so damn compelling. This third part of his “Village Trilogy,” which includes Howling Village and Suicide Forest Village, is Shimizu going back to the well that has kept him a staple of the haunted genre for decades. It’s also the best one of the trilogy. 


Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Burn It to the Ground: Burning Paradise (1994) Review

Director: Ringo Lam

Notable Cast: Willie Chi, Carman Lee, Wong Kam-Kong, Yamson Domingo, Maggie Lam Chuen, John Ching Tung, Kam-Fai Yuen, Ng Hey-Sin, Lee Chi, Chris Lee King-Sang


Wuxia films from the 90s, particularly the early 90s, are their own breed. After the genre lost some favor with audiences throughout the 80s as urban and modern action films started to dominate the box offices, Tsui Hark rekindled the genre with his epic Once Upon a Time in China series, and a new age of wuxia was born. In the wake of the success of that franchise, a lot of studios and filmmakers took their own stab (swing? slice?) at the genre but with slightly updated tones and style for the 90s. 


One of the most intriguing gaps in my own experience of working through the bigger titles from this decade was Burning Paradise. Directed by the iconic Ringo Lam, only two years before he would exit the Hong Kong industry to make his attempt at breaking into Hollywood, Burning Paradise was the only time he would dabble in the wuxia genre. 


And while the film had its own cult reputation through bootlegs, it’s only just recently did the film find a fantastic home video release via Vinegar Syndrome for fans, like me, to finally experience. 


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Putting the Cult in Cult Cinema: Yellow Dragon's Village (2023) [Screambox Original]

Director: Yugo Sakamoto

Notable Cast: Atomu Mizuishi, Mayu Suzuki, Takuya Matsumoto, Yuni Akino, Zingi Umemoto, Rikiya Kaidou, Yu Yasuda, Wataru Ichinose, Itsuki Fuji, Masayuki Ino, Kenta Osaka


Never underestimate the DIY indie film industry either. Sure, the big leagues and studio films have the money and time to make some impressive feats of cinema, but sometimes the most interesting slices of celluloid are the ones found in the cracks of the system. Take Yellow Dragon’s Village for instance. The film looks to be made by its on and off-screen creative teams for roughly $100 and the promise of shots at the local bar at the end of each day, but there is such a freedom to its playfulness that immediately strikes. 


While the film might be listed as a horror, sometimes a drama, on various platforms, it is far more than that. Yellow Dragon’s Village is premiere-low budget filmmaking at its finest, delivering a coy sense of humor along with its genre-bending play on expectations in a way that sets up its audience for one thing and then batters them with another. It uses its serious filmmaking concepts and then promptly, more than once, throws them out the window for the sake of toying with its audience.


Debuting on the streaming service Screambox, it’s that horror tag that represents the initial expectations that Yellow Dragon’s Village is playing with. Director Yugo Sakamoto, the one-man do-it-yourself filmmaker who delivered two (!) fantastic action films last year with A Janitor and Baby Assassins, tackles the horror genre with a story that starts off like any classic horror film. A group of college-aged youths find themselves stranded in the forest. It’s only when they stumble upon the titular village, where the locals offer to help them out, that they uncover a cult looking for their next sacrifice.